by Steve Habrat
Considering how popular the classic Universal Studios monsters have become over the years, it’s no big surprise that the studio keeps digging them out of their graves. With remakes of three of their biggest ghouls already on the market (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy), it makes sense for the studio to update one of their last big name monsters for modern audiences. In 2010, director Joe Johnston released The Wolfman, a CGI heavy update of George Waggner’s haunting 1941 classic that starred Lon Chaney Jr. With two Oscar winners in front of the camera and Rick Baker in charge of the werewolf make-up effects, The Wolfman should have been a smashing success, but there are several elements that caused the film to come out a major disappointment. While The Wolfman drips atmosphere and gothic set design that would make Tim Burton drool, this werewolf offering seems formulaic and misguided. At times it seems to want to be an action movie and the climax features a fight scene that looks like it would have been more at home in The Matrix rather than Universal monster movie. And then there is Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, two award winners who deliver some of the most lifeless performances of their careers.
The Wolfman reintroduces us to Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a renowned Shakespearean actor with a traumatic past. When he was just a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome demise, and in the wake of the discovery, his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins), shipped him off to an insane asylum. One evening, John receives news that his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence returns home to Blackmoor where he is met with news that his brother’s body was found mutilated. As Lawrence comes to terms with his brother’s death, he attempts to reconnect with his father and he strikes up a relationship with his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt). One night, Lawrence decides to visit a local gypsy that his brother was said to have associated with. While visiting the gypsies, the camp is attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf. During the attack, Lawrence suffers a bite that leaves him bedridden and suffering from horrific nightmares. With the town in hysterics over the violent attacks, Inspector Aberline (played by Hugo Weaving) arrives from London to launch an investigation before more bodies turn up. After being unconscious for many days, Lawrence wakes up and he initially believes he is okay, but when the moon is full, Lawrence undergoes a horrible transformation that turns him into a snarling monster. To make things worse, horrific family secrets come back to haunt Lawrence and new details about his mother’s death slowly start to emerge.
With Johnston kicking things off with the shimmering retro Universal Studios logo, you’d think that The Wolfman would remain a grounded tribute to what Waggner terrified audiences with back in 1941, but you quickly realize that is far from the truth. The opening werewolf attack is appropriately dark and gloomy, but it’s fairly obvious that this film is going to be drenched in rubbery CGI that instantly takes us out of the moment. And that is just the start of it. When blurry werewolves aren’t speeding across the screen, Johnston and Baker are having an extremely difficult time meshing the practical make-up effects glued to Del Toro’s face with the CGI extensions that are there to add some extra menace. We know Baker can do practical, especially after what he delivered with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, but it seems that Universal urged the filmmakers to cut corners with the practical effects, something that is perplexing when we consider what exactly Universal is remaking. Part of the appeal of the classic Universal monsters is their practicality—the idea that we could almost reach out and touch them. They are unnervingly real, even if we can see some of the lines in their make-up. When the Wolfman starts leaping, slashing, and killing here, it feels more like its playing out in the pages of an old EC Comic. It’s almost an insult to the original film rather than a loving tribute.
While the copious amounts of CGI hold it back, The Wolfman does excel in the set design and costume department. The shots of 18th century London are absolutely exquisite. There is a grittiness to the city shots but there is also plenty of glamour to be found, especially when Johnston delivers a shot of the Wolfman crouched on a gothic gargoyle while howling at the full moon. It’s spectacular and it certainly holds up on a high-definition television. When we get to explore the Talbot manor, Johnston presents a shadowy mansion that you could very well see Dracula prowling around. There are cobwebs dangling from the staircase railing and there are dead leaves scattered about the marble floors. There are closed off rooms with ghosts of traumatic years past and characters peek through the darkness with candelabras in their clutches. The outdoor gardens are tangled vines that died many years ago and the local villages are as muddy and cruddy as they can get. Then there is the insane asylum, which features patients crouched in their cells wrapped in straight jackets. There is an observation room that is a stand in for a massive coffin, a maze that traps in a slew of doctors as they wait to see if Lawrence will really transform into a chopping werewolf. If there is any reason to see The Wolfman, it’s because of the extravagant sets that obviously cost a pretty penny. However, it was disappointing to see Universal remake The Wolfman and not give us a few scenes in a foggy forest. Here, we do get an eerie forest, but it never features the rolling sheets of fog that crept by Chaney’s hairy feet.
What is perhaps the most frustrating part of The Wolfman is just how miscast Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins truly are. Del Toro certainly resembles Lon Chaney Jr., but there is also something faintly hard about the man that prevents us from viewing him as a tragic character doomed to a hellish fate. There are scenes where he seems be settling into the character, but some of the more dramatic moments seem put on. There is never any of the nervous shifting and antsy unease that kept Chaney pacing in his room waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Hopkins is asked to fill the enormous shoes of Claude Rains, who portrayed Sir John as a compassionate but rational man who grapples with the wild story his son tells of a werewolf taking a chunk out of his chest. It’s best not to say too much about his role, but Hopkins seems all to eager to give away the big reveal. Blunt seems to enjoy playing the misty-eyed damsel in distress and mourning love interest. She isn’t given much to do beyond holding Lawrence’s head and skip stones at a local pond, but there is something about her character that you just can’t resist. Hugo Weaving rounds out the cast as Inspector Aberline, the rather bland antagonist out to get to the bottom of the brutal slaying happening around Blackmoor. He dashes around with importance and the unblinking determination carved into his face does do the trick, but we never come to truly like or loathe him.
As far as the scares are concerned, with so much CGI artificiality contaminating the screen, The Wolfman is never permitted to become very scary. Hell, not even the howls send a chill! However, if you’re in the market for some serious blood and guts, then you’ve come to the right gothic castle. Bodies are slashed and bitten into hamburger meat, with guts splattered on the autumn ground. Head’s go flying across the screen, werewolf nails shoot through open mouths, and limbs are sent flying through the air with a thin trail of—you guessed it—CGI blood. The gore is extremely entertaining and it is sort of fun to see Universal embracing such savagery, especially when the Wolfman goes berserk in the streets of London. All the savagery does spiral out of control by the end, as Johnston ends The Wolfman with goofy werewolf brawl that finds hairy beats flying all over Talbot manor. You honestly wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t doing wiry flips and leaps that would have been more at home in The Matrix. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Hugo Weaving is on hand here. Overall, while Universal showered the project in money, The Wolfman 2010 never dares explore the monsters that can lurk in even the mot mild mannered individuals. It falls victim to what almost every other horror film falls victim to: CGI excess. It’s all to eager to top the original rather than acting as a respectful tribute to a classic.
The Wolfman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone has plenty of hits to his name. He penned Scarface and directed classics like Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, to name a few. After a string of misfires and a hurried W., Stone returns to splatter territory with Savages, a wannabe Natural Born Killers that was adapted from Don Winslow’s novel of the same name. Savages is ripe with potential but Stone seems to be holding back his punches that he throws at us, failing to really engage us intellectually for a good majority of the runtime. It also doesn’t help that his three young leads, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, and Blake Lively, are all astoundingly comatose compared to heavy hitters like the scorching Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek. Savages lifts the camerawork of Natural Born Killers and drags along almost as many buckets of gore, but the story rambles on for entirely too long and gets a kick out of trying to overcomplicate itself, which is laughable because the film isn’t that complicated to begin with. I hoped that Savages would be a biting drug thriller that would join the ranks of Stone’s classics but alas, it falls more along the lines of World Trade Center.
Savages is told from the point of view of O (Played by Blake Lively), who warns us at the beginning that just because she is narrating this story doesn’t mean she is alive at the end of it. O is in a three-way relationship with two top California pot growers, who churn out some of the strongest herb you can get your hands on. The brain behind the operation is the dreadlocked Ben (Played by Aaron Johnson) and the muscle of the business is former U.S. Navy SEAL Chon (Played by Taylor Kitsch). The group lives a cushy life in a beachfront home where they indulge in their product and engage in lots of steamy sex. Out of the blue one day, Chon discovers an email from the Mexican Baja Cartel that contains a gruesome video of several smalltime drug dealers being butchered due to refusing to do business with the BC. Ben and Chon meet with a handful of high-ranking members of the BC but they refuse the offer that is made to them. Word gets back the terrifying head of the BC, Elena (Played by Salma Hayek), and as revenge, she sends her sadistic enforcer Lado (Played by Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap their girlfriend. With O in Elena’s clutches, she bullies Ben and Chon into doing business with her but she soon realizes that these two California boys have a lot more fight in them than she anticipated.
There is certainly plenty of hyperactive energy in this Technicolor massacre with plenty of excessive violence to make those with a weak tummy fight back their lunch, but you can’t help but feel that Stone has watered down his trickling gore. It could be called maturity on Stone’s part but Savages lacks a commentary behind all this carnage. Plus, it is difficult to say that this man has matured when he starts his movie off with heads being lobbed off with a roaring chain saw and an animalistic sex scene, all sound, flesh, and fury that ultimately signifies nothing. With Natural Born Killers, each speckle of blood meant something and we knew it. Here, the most intelligent touch from Stone is the way he slips in old Universal Studios monsters posters (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man, to name a few) throughout the movie, placing them carefully behind Chon and Ben. Even so, what does this mean? Perhaps Stone is making a comment on the progression of the movie monster. They used to be undead ghouls who snuck around gothic castles but now they are young entrepreneurs in floral shirts. To make it even clearer to us, when Ben and Chon are forced to get savage, they cover their faces in Dia de los Muertos masks to become visually monstrous. Our antagonists do the same, but they do it right off the bat in the opening sequence. Can you believe this is coming from the man responsible for that string of gems I listed earlier?
Stone populates Savages with a trio of young faces who no doubt bring the sex appeal but none of the grit that Stone is aiming for. Blake Lively provides the somnolent narration, sounding like she is stoned for half the movie. She further acts as a wrecking ball when she is required to do more than fake an explosive orgasm. The massive talented Taylor Kitsch, who really delivered a strong performance in Battleship, only brushes with that trembling rage every now and then which was a flat out bummer. Aaron Johnson, of Kick-Ass fame, plays a blurry-eyed hippie blessed with business smarts as well as a knack for botany. He loathes the very though of violence and empties his stomach when he is asked to shoot a taunting baddie promising to murder his entire family (What family?). We learn about the drastically different personalities of these young guns through O’s description of the way they make love. This explanation gives way to what could be the most outrageous line of dialogue I have heard from a motion picture in 2012. O tells us that she has “orgasms” while Chon has “wargasams”. I’ll wait while you finish laughing…
Luckily, the kids don’t hog the spotlight and Stone allows Hayek and Del Toro to have some fun at center stage. Hayek is a tour de force as the matriarch of the BC, putting on a quiet cool before she unleashes a stream of wrath that is part English, part Spanish, and all Hell. She is reeling from the death of her husband and nurses a broken heart for several murdered children she has had the misfortune of burying. Her remaining children want nothing to do with her and in her loneliness, she turns to O for some sort of comfort. Del Toro, meanwhile, single handedly steals the show away from everyone with his sociopathic enforcer Lado, who proudly wears a stunning mullet. You won’t be able to take your eyes of this guy and when he struts into the action, your stomach will drop one hundred feet. John Travolta also shows up in a minor role that doesn’t make him look like a complete fool for once. He has a blast as the slimy DEA agent Dennis, who is playing on all sides of this bloody game. When Stone keeps the focus on these professionals, Savages actually manages to be a great movie, but that is only glimpsed briefly.
Savages does have a precious few moments that will have you on the edge of your seat, but all that tension is squandered when Stone arrives at the fake-out conclusion that is absolutely unnecessary. It was almost like Stone stepped away from the project and allowed an imitator to swoop in and finish the job. Making matters worse, Lively is such an inconsistent actress that she makes moments of the film difficult to watch. A scene where she begs to speak with Elena had my buddies and I rolling our eyes in disgust over how unconvincing her pleas sound. The film also drags on for slightly over two hours, allowing this trio of star crossed lovers to chatter on and on about absolutely nothing. Lets get to that stuff that matters! Overall, I wish Savages had more on its mind, a huge kick to the gonads because Stone is sharper than this. We should be grateful that Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta brought their A-game. They are three snarling Pit Bulls while these other kids are yapping Chihuahuas.
by Steve Habrat
Believe it or not, I really enjoy sports films. Sports films usually follow a character that is completely engulfed in their art. Yes, I consider sports an art form. The athletes are there to entertain and often times inspire you. Sports lure out all different types of emotions from the athletes themselves, be it soaring happiness or the lowest form of defeat. Yet I always find myself in awe over their dedication to whatever it is they perform. There is also something about rooting for the underdog in these films, which usually borrow from real life events. It allows the viewers to believe in the idea of miracles and prove to us that hard work pays off. To some, it could suggest a higher power looking over the little guy or gal. These athletes will sacrifice their personal life, love, their sanity, and even their own sanctuaries—their bodies, all in the name of their art. I guess I can relate because I dedicate myself to movies completely. I will go to great lengths to see a movie I am infinitely excited about to the point where I will practically be collapsing from exhaustion at work the next day. I just had to see that midnight showing. I love it when people are overcome with a dedication to what they love. It to me means that they stand for something. For athletes and the people behind the scenes of the specific sport, they are dedicated to winning and an ultimate triumph. The victory symbolically wipes away any defeat they have suffered in the past.
Take Moneyball, the casual and self-assured new true-story sports film not about athletes themselves, but about the individuals who build baseball teams. Moneyball is about the ones who give themselves over completely to deliver wins and leave a legacy. We see countless scenes where characters sit around television screens and discuss a player’s form. They sit around tables and debate about what player has the ideal appearance for America’s favorite pastime. They fight with each other, feelings are hurt, and lessons are learned. It’s all in the name of what these men love. At the heart of all of it is Billy Beane (Played by Brad Pitt), who seems to be suffering from sleep deprivation behind a protruding bottom lip that is filled with chewing tobacco, sagging eyes, and a face that shows traces of Benicio del Toro. Beane is the GM (General Manager) of the Oakland A’s, who are in a scramble to rebuild their crumbling team after a crushing loss to the Yankees. They can’t compete with the salaries of teams like the New York Yankees, but boy, do they have heart and passion for their team. Beane travels to Cleveland, Ohio to discuss player trades with the Indians and during the meeting, notices a bright young number cruncher/player analyst named Peter Brand (Played by Jonah Hill, in one hell of a dramatic turn) who picks favorite players based on mathematics and science over form and physical appearance. Impressed by the young Peter, Billy hires him to devise a system to pick up gifted athletes without shelling out a huge sum of cash. As Beane tries to reinvent the scouting system and stacks his team with a group of misfit players, the experiment is met with criticism from those around Beane. As the experiment falls apart, Beane begins to reflect on decisions he made and grapples with the fact that he may loose his career over the gamble.
I’d be bluffing if I said I understood every word of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s well-spoken script. It fires off more sports vocabulary and trivia than I could keep up with. Sometimes, it sounded like Greek. It had the two friends I saw it with giddy by the little nods to sports history and player cameos (I should clarify that it is players depicted by actors. They knew instantly who they were. I just shook my head and smiled.). I was there for the story and I can say that I walked away satisfied, like Zaillian and Sorkin treated me with respect. They didn’t dumb the film down for viewers like me, which I extol. This is a sports fan movie. This is also a warm film, one that made me feel like I was sitting in on these conversations that were taking place. I felt like I was sitting in the room with them. The men stick chew in their lips, spit into cups, shift nervously and uncomfortably in their seats, and sometimes stumble through their dialogue like a real individual would. Everything seems so spontaneous. Never like it has been memorized. When Oscar comes calling, I hope it remembers Mr. Pitt and Mr. Hill. The dialogue flows from their lips with ease to the point where they ceased being Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and morphed into Billy and Peter. I loved it.
Much of Moneyball’s success rests on the shoulders of director Bennet Miller, who always makes the film disarming, even when it suffers from a few editing problems and a disregarded climax that feels barely there and insignificant. The film builds up to this one moment, and it quickly passes with weird fade-outs, and glum voice-overs from sports commentaries. Miller can construct a scene, but sometimes the editing stubs an emotional moment. His pacing is superb and he had my undivided attention, even if the film runs a bit too long. He also builds suspense nicely; especially during a ballgame sequence that will leave you feeling like one of the fans on the day the real game was played.
Moneyball boasts an A-list cast of seasoned vets who punch in some phenomenal acting. I could not get enough of Pitt’s Beane, whose love of baseball outweighs a rocky past of humiliation and regret. His past starts to bite him in the ass, and we can see the beads of sweat forming on his brow. It’s quite possibly his most humanistic performance, where for once he shakes off the viewer’s perception of him. Every film he is in, no matter whom he plays I always think “Hey! That’s Brad Pitt!” Not to say he is not a talented actor (the man plays some seriously eccentric chaps), but here he seems approachable and on our ordinary level. Hill gives one of the finest performances of his career, playing the diffident Peter who drools over every pitch thrown. I honestly bought his love for the game. There is a scene near the beginning of the film where he approaches the A’s stadium. Some of the stadium employees are pulling down hulking banners of their beloved players who have left the team. He stares up at the theater in amazement. Peter is bewitched by game. The music is quiet strums on an electric guitar as he gazes lovingly upon his new home. It’s such a magnificent scene. There is also the welcome presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s beer bellied coach who casts icy glares at Beane and goes against him at every turn to save his career. He’s a background character, but it is now Oscar season so it makes sense he would pop up in this, an Oscar contender.
Moneyball is just shy of greatness. For someone who is on the outside of sports, it’s one heck of a story. It also is an eye-opening encounter, as I never knew what went in to scouting baseball players. Like all sports films, it does try to tug the heartstrings with its underdog traits. Sadly, it’s weighed down by a dragging run time and a handful of scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s great to see a celebration of passion and dedication. A testament to those who will risk their reputation to stand by what they love. I just can’t help but smile when Beane admits that he does not do what he does because of money. In the end, it’s Pitt and Hill who become the MVPs of the film. They hit a few home runs, but I wish that the film would have stepped up and delivered a grand slam. Grade: B+